The Spectre of Math

December 15, 2015

Esperanto and Math Textbooks, #EsperantoLives

Filed under: Esperanto,Mathematics,Teaching — jlebl @ 12:01 am

I haven’t made a post in quite a long time, and I was thinking I’ll take the opportunity of the #EsperantoLives campaign to make one.  I want to focus on Esperanto’s usefulness for math, specifically for access to math education in the developing world (and some tangential topics).  Perhaps a longer post than most this is an informal essay on the subject.

What is Esperanto?  It is a created language, on purpose made very regular, easy to learn, and generally made to avoid ambiguities and idioms and things that make communication between cultures difficult.  It is also intended to be a second language for everyone, giving no one an unfair advantage.

Let’s talk a bit about math textbooks, something which those that know me, know is a favorite topic of mine.  This is really about college-level textbooks, though some of it applies to lower levels.  Nowadays if you look on Amazon to look for the new version of Stuart’s calculus, it is something like $300.  It’s a great book, but while that price might be sort of OK for a middle class American or European, it doesn’t cut it when you talk about poorer students, and most definitely not students in developing countries.   There has been quite a push recently for high quality free textbooks to partially attack the problem.  That is, low cost books for the poor Americans and some Europeans; there’s quite a choice of math textbooks at the college level in English which are free.  Even some poorer countries benefit.  My textbooks are used in places like Tanzania or India.  But what if you happen to live in a part of the world that does not speak English?  The developing world where English is not spoken is at a huge disadvantage in terms of their education.  It is very difficult to translate textbooks into every possible language and so those students from large rich countries will always have access to more.

There are two choices.  A short term (and far from ideal) solution is to push for say English education in the developing world so that they have better access to educational materials.  A poor country that does not speak English nowadays is in a big disadvantage if it wishes to grow the ranks of its university educated.  But, even if those students learn English, their command of the language is likely to be poor, and given that English (like any natural language) is prone to being vague, that compounds the problem.  Especially for technical fields like math, science and engineering, where precision is paramount.

The second choice (much more long term) is to move to Esperanto (or a similar language).  There are several advantages.  Since it is meant to be a second language for everyone, nobody is at a disadvantage.  It can be mastered quickly and it avoids ambiguities, meaning understanding materials is less of a problem.

This may seem to assume universal adoption as a second language which is probably not realistic even in a very far future.  But we don’t need to get it perfect.  We don’t even need to get close.  We just need to get closer.  If e.g. EU decides on starting to push Esperanto as a common language, it would be enough.  Creating educational materials for higher education is sufficiently a niche, that it is hard for even smaller rich countries to cover all the bases.  If majority of Europeans spoke Esperanto at some point, educational materials could be easily shared.  But it would also mean that other developing countries get to use the work if they start teaching Esperanto.  Just like currently countries where English is spoken to some degree are able to take advantage of the wealth of material now.

You might say it is a naive unrealistic dream, … perhaps.  You might say that English is the “lingua franca,” but that’s really only true in the western world.  English is not even the most spoken language in the world.  Furthermore, I am not talking about the next 10 years, not the next 50 years, and perhaps not the next 100 years.  Around 70-80 years ago, there could be a good case made that French would not be displaced as the “lingua franca” by anyone.  And 100 years ago, French was clearly the international language without an argument.  200 years ago, Latin was still used as the “lingua franca” in science and medicine.  So things that might seem immutable, unchangeable, can in fact change in a few decades.

Finally, perhaps more tangentially, Esperanto would be far better for science.  Most international science is nowadays done in English, but from my own experience, there are many good even world renown mathematicians whose English is quite sub-par.  Many mistakes enter the literature, many results are ignored or lost, because the right person couldn’t quite read or write English well enough.  And remember up till 1800s, all math was done in Latin.  Then up till the 1960s it was very common to see German and French.  Russian was commonly used even later than that.  And there are still many publications in national languages.  The language used can change within a generation or two. Because Esperanto is easy to learn, if it starts making inroads into science it could take over much quicker than English did in the last half a century.

What can we in the rich developed world do?  We can learn Esperanto, and help create more texts and educational material in Esperanto (among other things).  We have the luxury to do so.  I myself plan to do some translating of my books to Esperanto at some point once I gain more confidence that I am writing good Esperanto, not just passable Esperanto.  And long term, we will fare much better with a more connected and generally richer world if we do.  Think about how much we are putting into medicine and technology, while large parts of the world are simply trying to survive.  What if every country could produce and then employ great scientists and engineers in the same quantity as we do.

So how did I get into Esperanto?  I heard of Esperanto and the idea behind it a long time ago and was always thinking about learning it, but have only started learning recently once it came out on Duolingo.  That seemed to be the only way to keep me motivated.  I’ve been learning since end of May this year, and by now I can read books, magazines, hold an online conversation in Esperanto.  I could probably hold a live conversation as well, though I’ve not tried yet.  On the other hand I’ve been on and off learning French for basically let’s say the past two decades, including very actively the past year.  I have so far failed to get to any sort of usable level.  So, Esperanto definitely is a lot easier to learn.  Both from a point of view of grammar (simple grammar with no exceptions), and from the point of view of vocabulary (lots of words are put together from fewer basic roots).

Kaj tio estas ĉio.

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1 Comment »

  1. This was a highly interesting read ! Education is something that can definitely be pushed forward by using Esperanto. I myself am just starting to learn the language and its culture, so this is very inspiring.

    Comment by Grace Lim Suwidar — December 15, 2015 @ 4:43 pm | Reply


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